Rapid Reaction: Notre Dame-UConn
INDIANAPOLIS -- A look at Notre Dame's 72-63 upset of two-time defending champion Connecticut on Sunday at the women's Final Four at Conseco Fieldhouse.
HOW THE GAME WAS WON: Notre Dame challenged Connecticut like few teams do. The Irish guarded tough and gave away nothing easy on the defensive end in the second half. Even more importantly, Notre Dame went right at the Huskies on offense. Natalie Novosel and Skylar Diggins driving hard to the basket throughout the second half might have been the single biggest key to the game.
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Connecticut's Maya Moore. In a losing effort, Moore did all she could, at least offensively. She scored 36 points and kept making tough shots on a night when her teammates didn't have what they needed to help her. It took 30 shots for her to get those 36 points, but it was necessary for her to do as much as she could.
PLAYER OF THE GAME II: Notre Dame's Novosel. Diggins was great in the first half and steady in the second (and we'll get to her in a second), but Novosel seemed to make up her mind in the final 20 minutes that Notre Dame wasn't going to lose. She finished with 22 points, 18 after halftime.
PLAYER OF THE GAME III: Notre Dame's Diggins. Her ability to control the game by controlling Notre Dame's offense was the play of a veteran, not a sophomore in her first Final Four. She finished with 28 points on 10-of-14 shooting, made all six of her free throws and had six assists. That's plenty to excuse six turnovers.
TURNING POINT: With 14 minutes left in the game, Stefanie Dolson picked up her fourth foul on a ticky-tack call near the baseline. UConn played well with her on the bench in the first half, but it did not go that way in the second. In the next 4½ minutes, the Huskies went from one down to seven down. When Dolson returned, UConn trailed 49-42 with 8:48 remaining.
TURNING POINT II: Bria Hartley hit a 3-pointer, the only one any UConn player other than Maya Moore hit all night, to get the Huskies back to within 49-45 with 8:22 left. Brittany Mallory and Novosel each hit 3-pointers on Notre Dame's next two possessions and, despite a Moore pull-up jumper in between, the Irish had re-established themselves and still led by eight. Ironically, those were only two of the four 3-pointers Notre Dame hit all night. Diggins made the other two in the first half.
STAT OF THE GAME : UConn led the nation in field goal percentage defense at just 32 percent this season. Notre Dame hit 51.9 percent from the field. That included going 15-of-27 from the floor in the second half. UConn just never got enough stops to be able to make that one final push. UConn had gone 263 consecutive games without allowing an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent from the field.
STAT OF THE GAME II: Tiffany Hayes scored just four points. Moore needed someone's help on the offensive end. Hayes is the Huskies' second-best scorer. Not tonight. She did get more aggressive in the second half and had a couple of tough misses in the lane, but UConn had little chance without more from Hayes.
STAT OF THE GAME III: Moore was just 3-of-8 at the free throw line. None of those misses were more damaging than the two she couldn't hit with 1:35 to go and the Huskies down 67-60 after she was fouled on a 3-point attempt. She also took more than half of UConn's shots from the field (30 of 59).
FINAL X FACTOR: Notre Dame's confidence. Perhaps it was the fact that the Irish were so familiar with UConn or that they came so close back in January in South Bend, but Notre Dame looked like it knew what it was doing at every moment. The execution was even better. Diggins got the Irish off to a steady start in the first half with 12 of the club's first 18 points, and Novosel was deadly after halftime. Each seemed so sure of what to do and was never scared by the moment or the Huskies. Most importantly, while leading, Notre Dame never went into the shell that so many teams who aren't supposed to beat the Huskies hit when the opportunity was there for an upset. Georgetown caved in in that way to UConn in the regional semis. Notre Dame took it to Connecticut right to the final horn.
First-half analysis: Connecticut 32, Notre Dame 26
PLAYER OF THE HALF: Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins. Playing completely within herself and within the framework of what Notre Dame wanted to do, Diggins established herself right away, doing a little bit of everything. She drove the lane for two baskets, found teammates and made jumpers, all under control. The sophomore from South Bend scored 12 of the Irish's first 18 points and finished with 14.
PLAYER OF THE HALF II: Connecticut's Maya Moore. UConn doesn't play a game where Moore isn't key. The attention she gets sets up so much for the other Huskies. Her 15 points led the way and when UConn played man-to-man, Moore had a hand in guarding just about every Notre Dame player except Diggins. Although listening to coach Geno Auriemma, he wasn't always happy with her defense.
KEY PLAYER III: Connecticut's Tiffany Hayes. The junior wing was key for what she didn't do. Too often in this tournament, or even the later part of the regular season, Hayes has been too quiet. The same holds true in a first half in which she attempted just three shots. Hayes needs to be more involved if UConn is going to survive in Indianapolis.
TURNING POINT: It's hard to find a true turning point in a half with 12 lead changes, but right at the end of the half, Moore made an outstanding drive and dish to Kelly Faris to give the Huskies their biggest lead. Diggins followed with one of her few mistakes, a turnover as Notre Dame was trying to get off a final shot.
KEY STAT: Connecticut leads by six, but shot merely 43.3 percent, compared with Notre Dame's 48 percent.
THREE THINGS NOTRE DAME HAS TO DO TO WIN:
1. Get more from someone other than Diggins. She has done most of the Notre Dame heavy lifting on the offensive end and will eventually need some help. That gets more difficult with Natalie Novosel saddled with three fouls.
2. More trouble for Moore. UConn's star is going to get her points, but Notre Dame needs to make her really work for them. Toward the end of the half, her looks were getting a bit too clean.
3. Pressure the Huskies. Diggins has done well to attack when the openings are there, but there isn't as much aggressive offensive play from the other members of the Irish. They need to do better than four offensive rebounds.
THREE THINGS CONNECTICUT HAS TO DO TO WIN:
1. Defend Diggins. It won't be easy to do. She's playing the best basketball of her young career, but Diggins also appears to be the only consistent offensive player Notre Dame can rely upon.
2. Let Moore keep going. She has taken 14 of the Huskies' 30 shots and looks in rhythm. Some outside help would better serve the Huskies, but Moore and Faris virtually beat Notre Dame by themselves the first time the two teams met in South Bend.
3. Keep Stefanie Dolson safe. UConn's center has two fouls. Everyone knows Connecticut can't afford any foul trouble, but Dolson (seven points) was playing well before she went out at the 5:47 mark, and her post presence adds another dimension, especially against the Irish.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.
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